This year Christmas was celebrated intimately in Palestine. Few groups of pilgrims came to celebrate the birth of Christ. However, at 1:30 p.m., Manger Square was crowded. This was the entrance with great pomp and circumstance of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal. He was welcomed by the Franciscans and seminarians from the Patriarchate, as well as Armenians and Greek Orthodox inside the Basilica. This Christmas in Bethlehem was likely his last as patriarch. Being 75 years old, he has submitted his resignation to the Pope, as required by Canon Law.
A boy scout marching band, Christmas hats, a giant Christmas tree, a life-size nativity scene ; everything was there. Palestinians, whether Christian or Muslim, came in great numbers to participate in this important feast of Christmas, which has brought people together during difficult times.
Just after dark, the city was decorated with lighted multicolored garlands. The Christmas tree, crowned with a star, acted as a beacon for onlookers. All came to take pictures with this enormous tree that dominates the main square. But at 7 p.m., its lights were turned off for five minutes. The patriarch wanted this as a sign of solidarity with all of the victims of violence in the world, especially those in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tree’s lights were turned off, but the full moon lit up the crowd, and a patriotic song resounded. “There is a great sadness that has come over us at Christmas this year,” said Mona, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, who came with her children. “This is unlike previous Christmas celebrations,” she insisted.
Tonight it would seem that the patriarch’s plea to pilgrims to continue coming to the Holy Land has fallen on deaf ears, at least somewhat. A group of French students, from Lorient in Brittany, however, could not hide their joy of being there. “It’s magic!” exclaimed Alban. “Although it is true that in Jerusalem we could not really feel the Christmas spirit, here we can,” said Isaure. The 21 high school students must celebrate Christmas mass at the Sheperds’ Field, following the example of forty other groups. That is fewer than the 70 masses that were celebrated last year, and a lot fewer than the 140 masses celebrated at Christmas in 2013.
9 p.m. It wsa time to take one’s seat in the church. Around 11 p.m., the patriarch solemnly opened—after doing so on December 13 in Gethsemane—the holy door of St. Catherine’s Church for the Year of Mercy. He presided over the ceremony, which was attended by Patriarch Emeritus Michel Sabbah and Patriarchal Vicar William Shomali. Many friars of the Custody, including Ricardo Bustos, the monastery’s guardian, concelebrated the mass, while others were involved in organizing the celebration so that it could take place under the best conditions.
Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, arrived a few minutes before midnight. Ministers, ambassadors, consuls and diplomatic representatives were present.
The Patriarch’s homily, read by Msgr. William Shomali, stressed the importance of this Year of mercy, so as to remind us that compassion is necessary: “What we are suffering in these days is the lack of mercy [.. .] Mercy is not limited to individual relationships but should embrace public life in all of its realms: political, economic, cultural, social … at all levels: international, regional and local levels and in all directions: between states, peoples, ethnic groups, religions and confessions …”
“Mercy is not a sign of weakness,” he continued, “but an expression of divine omnipotence that is best expressed through compassion and forgiveness. There is no opposition between God’s mercy and his justice, because he is equally just and merciful. Anyone who refuses to use his mercy will eventually fall under the firm grip of his justice. This gives hope to the peoples and to individuals, [including] victims of injustice. On this topic, Jesus Christ said: “The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Mt 7: 2) and “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
At midnight, the bells pealed out, and the Gloria of the Custody’s choir resonated throughout the church. At the end of the mass, the smiles on people’s faces were quite obvious. We should be reminded of the sermon of St. Leo the Great, which was read tonight: “We are not allowed to be sad when we are celebrating the birthday of life [itself].”